Profile: 2. Stanford’s Graduate School of Business

A big part of the change is the Critical Analytical Thinking seminar in the first quarter that Saloner believes stands up well in light of the severe recession that hobbled the world in 2009. “The financial services professionals who weathered the storm the best in the last few years weren’t those who said, ‘debt is cheap and how do I arbitrage it?’ Instead, they asked themselves, ‘Why are the debt markets behaving the way they are?’ and then dug beneathed that and said, ‘Maybe there’s some correlated risks here that should be taken into account” and ‘maybe there’s some moral hazard in the way that these markets are playing out.’ That’s all about critical analytical thiking and it’s principled analytical thinking.”

Throughout the course, students analyze, write about, and openly debate fundamental questions that transcend any single discipline or function of management. Each student is assigned a writing coach, often a former journalist or English teacher, who reviews all essays, provides writing advice, and grades the papers on style. CAT professors, including Saloner, grade the papers for both logic and persuasiveness. The professors also become the academic advisters to the students. By putting the seminar at the start of the MBA experience, Stanford ensures that students have the chance to use their newly acquired critical thinking and communication skills in the courses that follow.

“It’s a much more expensive program to deliver,” says Saloner. “We have 24 sections of 16 students each. That’s 15 to 16 full professors, a quarter of the full professorial teaching that class alone.” The school, in fact, has had to increase its faculty ranks by 10% to cover the increased demand it puts on faculty. In 2007 and 2008, only two professors were able to take sabbaticals, compared with the usual 14 to 15, because of the new curriculum.

There’s a similar intensity of the new Strategic Leadership course as well. Among its four parts is Leadership Interpersonal Skills, which meets once a week for the first six weeks of the quarter in three-hour sessions. Essentially, it’s a laboratory for skills development. Students are broken into groups of eight and assigned leadership coaches. The Strategic Leadership course ends in December when the entire first-year class engages in a daylong “Executive Challenge” simulation with alumni board members. About 160 senior alums attend and participate in the session.

The first class to go through the new MBA program graduated in 2009. Their experience led to a few tweaks. “The committee that did the work on the new curriculum was good at addition and bad at subtraction,” says Saloner. “We increased the requirements well above what they had been so we have now lightened it up in the first year. And students can also take some electives in the first year.”

The big lesson for Stanford largely occurred as a result of the newly required global experience. “That was wildly more successful then we anticipated,” says Saloner. “We underestimated the impact of it because when students come back and shre their experiences that has globalized the GSB to an extent we never imagined. It changed the whole nature of the place.”

For students, the increased global exposure in the new curriculum has led to the most memorable moments in the MBA experience. Elizabeth Ivester, of the Class of 2010, says the highlight of her two years at Stanford was a study group to Thailand and Cambodia with 20 fellow students and faculty. The group had a highly emotional and inspirational meeting with the leader of a non-profit that is supplying a tribunal with evidence of genocide and crimes against humanity by officials of the Khmer Rouge.

Just as critical, the curriculum changes only reinforced a culture that has long been more cooperative than competitive, known for its embrace of diversity rather than sameness. “There is a rich collaborative part of the school,” says Jason Hild of the Class of 2010. “The nature of our student culture is to help. There is not a competitive beat-you-out culture here. We all know each other. The sense of community is pretty unbelievable.”

The support and encouragement that community provides is tangible in and outside every class. For Brendan Wallace, who co-founded a start-up while at Stanford called identified.com, it even helped get the company moving. Fellow classmates volunteered to plot both a sales strategy and a marketing study for the new business as part of their elective courses.

One of the most dramatic experiences of the program for Hild was the leadership coaching he received from a second-year student under the new curriculum. “I had an MBA coach as a mentor and met with her ten times in the spring and winter quarters,” he recalls. “She took me through things that just blew me out of the water. She helped me think about how I could address some personal issues that were holding me back and completely change myself.”

The second year of the program allows students to take full advantage of Stanford’s catalog of about 100 electives, from “The Power of Social Technology” to “Reform and Growth in Emerging Markets.” MBA students can also take up to 12 of the 100 units reqruied for graduation at courses offered by other Stanford schools, including Law, Engineering, Humanities and Science, and Earth Science. One complaint, however, is that demand outstrips supply for many of the more popular electives taught by Stanford’s best professors. The school holds a lottery for these classes and there are a good number of disappointed students who can’t seem to get into Irving Grousbeck’s or Joel Peterson’s course on “Managing Growing Enterprises.”